Conservation news

Nigeria’s wildlife traders, who weathered Ebola, eye post-COVID-19 boom

  • Restrictions imposed by the Nigerian government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have hampered field operations of conservation agencies and NGOs, who are turning to creative and high-tech solutions to maintain operations.
  • Conservationists fear that a reduction in patrols and enforcement leaves Nigeria’s biodiversity — already under pressure due to a vast wildlife trade — extremely vulnerable.
  • In Nigeria’s wildlife markets, some traders report a downturn due to a generally slow economy, and to movement restrictions on customers. However, they say a ban on interstate travel has not stopped the flow of wildlife products between forests and cities.

On March 30, authorities in Nigeria imposed a lockdown on the commercial city of Lagos, neighboring Ogun state, and the capital city Abuja. As COVID-19 spread to all 36 of Nigeria’s states, the government quickly placed a ban on interstate travel (now partly eased). Curfews were introduced, face masks made compulsory, and public spaces like markets and places of worship either shut down or required to limit entry to 50 people at a time.

The gradual reopening of the economy has led to the easing of some restrictions. But the activities of conservationists, classified as non-essential services, still face limitations.

Among the conservation activities that have been reduced or stopped entirely are guard patrols; logging monitoring; tracking of traffickers; intercepting farmers encroaching on protected areas; community outreach programs; and prosecuting arrested offenders.

Nigeria, a country of 200 million people, is home to a vast wildlife trade. A wide array of animals, including endangered apes and pangolins, are hunted to feed both domestic and international demand for bushmeat and body parts. With pressure on the country’s biodiversity so great, easing up on conservation measures can be costly.

“There are gaps with the fact that most people are away,” says Joseph Onoja, director of technical programs at the Lagos-based NGO Nigerian Conservation Foundation. “Law enforcement are generally weak, something that poachers may exploit this period.”

The responses of wildlife traders contacted by Mongabay indicate that conservationists like Onoja have good reason to be concerned. Some traders say the global economic downturn is putting a damper on their activities, or that movement restrictions are having an impact at the retail end of the business. However, despite restrictions they said hunting has persisted, and that few customers or hunters appear to be deterred by research linking pangolins and the COVID-19 outbreak, or by the high likelihood that a respiratory disease like COVID-19 could spread easily between apes and humans.

“We noticed in the early stages of coronavirus that a lot of our customers were slightly withdrawing their patronage. Sometimes I have six unsold pangolins — which is abnormal,” says Adam King, who sells bushmeat in Emure-ile, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Lagos in Ondo state. “As the virus stayed longer, and those who were eating the bushmeat weren’t catching coronavirus, our customers started buying the bushmeat again.”

Photographed in 2019, a vendor smokes antelope meat at a bushmeat market on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

Species under threat

Pangolins, believed to be the world’s most trafficked animal due to demand for their scales, are particularly vulnerable. According to the Netherlands-based Wildlife Justice Commission, 55% of pangolin scales seized globally between 2016 and 2019 were linked to Nigeria. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s apes face a double threat of poaching and a likely vulnerability to infection by COVID-19.

With hunting and habitat loss driving the global population of Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes ellioti) down to just 6,000 individuals, and the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) to fewer than 300, an epidemic would be devastating.

In addition, trees such as rosewood and iroko (Milicia excelsa) have been unsustainably logged to feed demand for wood products in expanding urban centers.

Protecting these species is already a challenge. The restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 have amplified the difficulties. Both government officials and private conservation groups have faced restrictions on movement, the need to maintain social distance, and a low supply of personal protective equipment, which is vital for protecting both wildlife workers and the apes they may encounter.

A Cross River Gorilla, pictured here at Cameroon’s Limbe Wildlife Centre. Only about 300 of the species are believed to survive in the mountainous border regions of Nigeria and Cameroon. Image by Julie Langford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A variety of initiatives have been deployed in response.

For instance, the National Park Service, the agency leading the protection and management of national parks across the country, says it now uses drones and other high-tech tools to conduct enhanced surveillance on protected areas. Some rangers have also been retained in the parks, and regularly check in with their supervisors via phone calls, WhatsApp or email. The parks are closed to visitors, while rangers are required to wear protective gear to avoid infecting apes or other genetically related animals while maintaining patrols across poaching and logging hotspots.

The Nigeria Conservation Foundation (NCF), one the country’s most active biodiversity NGOs, has been able to draw on a wide network of field workers. The organization has sustained field operations through field officers who live close enough to reserves that they can literally walk short distances from their homes to protected areas. As with the park service, supervising officers get regular updates by phone about arrests, patrols, and the interception of loggers or poachers via phone calls.

With normal court procedures on hold but a handful of arrests still being made, officials are also having to turn to unusual solutions. “Since the courts are temporarily suspended, we have adopted other approaches to prosecution,” says Ibrahim Goni, Nigeria National Park Service’s conservator-general. “Suspected offenders are now handed over to traditional rulers or religious leaders from their community of origin, who stands as a surety for them pending when the court would be able to resume their activities. After the pandemic, the surety would produce these suspects for proper litigation. This has worked so well because it is helping us forge a new layer of relationship with local communities and get them more involved in conservation.”

Efforts to protect both rangers and wildlife from COVID-19 include masking and maintaining social distance. Image courtesy of Nigeria National Park Service

Goni says he’s optimistic about the effectiveness of these measures. “The Park Service has observed a great reduction in poaching activities … in our various national parks,” he says. “There were reported cases of increased and frequent sighting of animals by rangers and communities surrounding the parks.”

Hunters contacted by Mongabay paint a different picture.

Some agree that less hunting now takes place in the parks and protected areas. But they did not attribute the decline to effective conservation measures, or to restrictions on movement due to the lockdown.

“Most hunters don’t journey on normal roads or in the daytime [when law enforcement is most active],” says hunter Abubaker Suberu. “They move between state boundaries through the forests, usually in the midnight. But those who hunt in the daytime or inside the protected areas can always share their catch with the forest officers on duty in return for being allowed to hunt in the protected places.”

When reached by phone in early June, Suberu said he hadn’t gone hunting in the past two weeks. In his last effort, he killed two pangolins and an antelope but couldn’t find a buyer, prompting him to take a break. With imported products scarce and inflation rising, Suberu also said the cost of hunting equipment like cartridges and batteries have also doubled. When asked if people in his hunting guild and local community are afraid to hunt or eat pangolins due to a potential link to the outbreak of COVID-19, Suberu laughed mockingly. People who rely on a daily income to feed their families worry about hunger and lack of money, he says, but no one in his community would fear hunting or eating pangolins if they have the means.

A ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii), one of three pangolin species found in Nigeria. One other pangolin species lives in Southern and Central Africa, and four others live in Asia. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Impacts at market level

Further up the supply chain, traders in bushmeat and wildlife parts report COVID-19 having a variety of effects on their business. Most say their business is down, but they point to a general economic slowdown and the difficulty of getting goods to customers, rather than changing customer preferences.

Egbetuye Babatope, an experienced herbalist who deals in pangolin-based cures, slams the warnings of potential disease outbreaks linked to the wildlife trade as “blasphemy, conspiracy and fallacy.” Babatope, the spokesperson for the Ondo state chapter of the National Association of Nigeria Traditional Medicine Practitioners, says he has used pangolin scales and tongue, mixed with other ingredients, to cure hepatitis B, high blood pressure, diabetes and infertility.

“The coronavirus rumors would do nothing to traditional medicine. Our forefathers eat animals without problems. Same as our fathers. How suddenly have those animals grown diseases unknown to our fathers over many centuries? If what is said of the animals are true, all Africans would have been dead by now,” the quick-speaking Babatope said in a phone interview.

In Lagos, the epicenter of the country’s wildlife trade and a city of more than 20 million people, local sellers reported a drop in customers, largely due to economic uncertainty, a declining export market and limited mobility of individual buyers.

“The demand for pangolin scales has seriously dropped,” said one trader in the Epe wildlife market on the outskirts of Lagos, who says he has been supplying pangolin scales to the Chinese residents of Nigeria for the past five years. “The Chinese or [their local intermediaries] aren’t buying in bulk because of the uncertainty of the post-pandemic era. But they still come around to buy live pangolins.”

Generally, the cost of wildlife products has dropped significantly, the trader said. For example, a giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) now sells for 7,000 naira ($18), half of the pre-pandemic price. He estimates around 30 pangolins are sold every week in Epe, with Chinese residents in Nigeria and wealthy urban Nigerians forming the bulk of buyers.

In this 2019 image, Sunday Akpa prepares for a night’s hunting in southeastern Nigeria. Along with his weapons, he carries a protective charm made from ape bones. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.

In Ondo state, western Nigeria, one of the hunting hubs in Nigeria because of its vast forests, traders report similar setbacks. Adam King, who sells bushmeat in Emure-ille, says fewer buyers mean that his daily income has dropped from 15,000 naira to 3,000 naira ($39 to $8). However, King says he continues to receive orders from Lagos, Kano and other cities across the country.

In Ogbete, one of the largest markets in eastern Nigeria, animal body part traders say the restrictions on movement have made it more difficult to make home deliveries to customers seeking wildlife products. But, they say, demand remains high and they are working to build up stock from hunters and middlemen, who rely on secret routes and bribes to keep products flowing between forests and towns.

Herbalists such as Babatope also report steady demand for pangolin-based herbal cures. In the eastern Nigeria state of Enugu, ape body part trader Ekene Ezenwoke says he has received orders from several herbalists asking asking for body parts from apes and other animals. But restrictions on movement mean he can’t supply the products on request.

“The only problem is that most of my buyers are not able to move to my location to pick their animal parts. We talk on the phone and presently I have more than 30 persons in need of animal parts and other herbal materials,” Ezenwoke says. “Ebola came and left. Coronavirus won’t be any different.”

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